VATICAN CITY, (Reuters) – Pope Benedict is expected to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories next year in a trip significant for political and religious relations in the Middle East, Vatican sources said on Thursday.
The trip, which the sources said would most likely take place in the spring, would be Benedict’s first to the Holy Land since his election in 2005. Two of his predecessors in modern times, John Paul II and Paul VI, visited the Holy Land.
It also would help to ease recent tensions beteween Catholics and Jews over the role of wartime Pope Pius XII, who some Jews have accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said the pope had accepted an invitation by Israeli President Shimon Peres to visit in May.
A Vatican spokesman said he could not comment on the Haaretz report but Vatican sources said discussions were under way.
The Vatican supports Israel’s right to exist within secure borders alongside an independent Palestinian state and hopes a papal trip can can help political and religious dialogue aimed at a comprehensive Middle East peace.
Vatican officials repeatedly have condemned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denials of the Holocaust and his calls for Israel to be wiped out.
A trip by the pope to Israel also would help improve Catholic-Jewish relations, strained recently over Pius XII.
Pius, who reigned from 1939 until his death in 1958, has been accused by some Jews of inaction over the Holocaust during World War Two, a charge his supporters and the Vatican deny.
Many Jewish groups have called on Benedict to freeze the process that could one day make Pius a saint until more Vatican archives on the wartime period are opened, with one Italian Jewish leader saying that making Pius a saint before information is available would open a “wound difficult to heal”.
At issue is whether Benedict should let Pius proceed on the road to sainthood — which Catholic supporters want — by signing a decree recognising his “heroic virtues”. This would clear the way for beatification, the last step before sainthood.
Benedict so far has not signed the decree, approved last year by the Vatican office that oversees sainthood cases, opting instead for what the Vatican has called a period of reflection.
The Vatican says that while Pius did not speak out against the Holocaust, he worked behind the scenes to help Jews because direct intervention would have worsened the situation by prompting retaliations by Hitler.
Last month, the Vatican rebuked one of its own officials who said the pope could not visit Israel as long as a controversial caption critical of Pius remained at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust.
Catholic-Jewish relations also were strained this year by the re-introduction of a prayer used by traditionalists during a Good Friday service that was seen as calling for the conversion of Jews.
The Vatican later reassured Jews that the prayer did not indicate a change in the Church’s high regard for Jews or its contempt for anti-Semitism.